Irish stepdancing (one type of "Irish dance") is a type of recreational and competitive folk dance that has been recently popularized by the world-famous "Riverdance", "Celtic Tiger", and "Lord of the Dance". The dance form has its roots in Ireland. When performed as a solo dance, it is generally characterized by a stiff upper body and the quick and precise movements of the feet. Stepdancing as a modern form is descended directly from sean nós ("old style") stepdancing. There are in fact many other forms of stepdancing in Ireland (such as the Connemara style stepdancing), but the style most familiar is the Munster, or southern, form, which has been formalized by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, which first met in 1930. An Coimisiún was formed from a directorate of the Gaelic League during the so-called Modern Revival.
As a dance form, Irish dance has very precise rules about what one may and may not do and when, but within these rules there is almost infinite room for variety and innovation. Thus, Irish stepdancing is a vibrant and constantly evolving art form.
Roots of Irish dance Edit
The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in tandem with traditions of Irish traditional music. The very first roots were in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also partially influenced by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Traveling dancing masters taught all over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.
The English landlords frowned on dancing (and indeed, all forms of Irish culture) as subversive, but the tradition never truly disappeared. In the nineteenth century, the Irish diaspora spread Irish dance all over the world, especially to North America and Australia.
One explanation for the unique habit of keeping the hands and upper body stiff relates to the stage. In order to get a hard surface to dance on, people would often unhinge doors and lay them on the ground. Since this was clearly a very small "stage", there was no room for the movement of the arms. However, movement of the arms is sometimes incorporated into modern Irish stepdance, although this is generally seen as a hybrid and non-traditional addition.
Yet another explanation has to do with venue. Irish dance was usually performed in pubs or in small barns, where, because of the restricted space, moving the arms could be hazardous to both the dancer and the audience.
But perhaps the most likely explanation is a practical one. The solo dances are characterized by quick, intricate movements of the feet. Reportedly, as in "sean nós" (old style) dancing, the arms were kept relaxed or with fists on the hips before the late 1890's. Sometime in that decade or the one following, a dance master had his students compete with arms held firmly down to their sides, hands in fists, in order to call more attention to the intricacy of the steps. The adjudicator approved by placing the students well. Other teachers and dancers quickly followed the new trend.
Some of the footwork of softshoe dances is echoed in the footwork of Scottish country dancing, though the two styles should never be confused. Tap dance was also influenced by Irish Stepdancing. Unlike softshoe dancing, hardshoe dancing involves rhythmic and very fast striking of the floor with the tips and heels of the shoes.
Three types of shoes are worn in competitive step dancing: hardshoes and two kinds of softshoe. The hardshoe ("heavy shoe", "jig shoe") is unlike the tap shoe, in that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, instead of metal. The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing. Later the soles were changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight.
Each shoe has eight striking surfaces: the toe, bottom, and sides of the front tap and the back, bottom, and sides of the back tap (the heel). Hardshoes are made of black leather with flexible soles. Sometimes the front taps are filed off in order to enable the dancer to stand on his or her toes, somewhat like pointe shoes. Hardshoes are worn when dancing the hornpipe, the treble jig or "heavy jig", and the treble reel. The same hardshoes are worn by all dancers, regardless of gender or age.
A legend about hardshoe dances is that the Irish used to dance at crossroads or on the earthen floors of their houses, and they removed and soaped their doors to create a resonant surface for hardshoe dancing. (The more common actuality was that dancers "battered" on a stone laid in the floor with a space underneath; in the case of set dancing, the head couple of the set would claim the stone.)
Softshoes, often called "ghillies" (or "gillies"), fit more like ballet slippers, but they are of black leather, with a leather sole and a very flexible body. They lace from toe to ankle and do not make sounds against the dance surface. They are worn for the light jig, the reel, the hop or single jig, group dances-with two or more people, and the slipjig. They also can be worn for céilí dancing, though this can be done in any kind of shoe.
The second kind of softshoe is worn by male dancers; these are called "Reel Shoes" and are similar to oxford or jazz shoes in black leather, with fiberglass heels that the dancers can click together. Younger male dancers often do not have the fiberglass heels. The men's steps are choreographed in a different style to girls' in order to take advantage of the heels.
"Reel", "slipjig", "hornpipe", and "jig" and "Set Dance" are used to define dances, but refer in fact to types of Irish traditional music. Reels are in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, a structure which is more or less unique to Irish music. The slip jig is usually only danced by female dancers. It is considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Hornpipes can be in 2/4 or 4/4 time, and are danced in hard shoes. There are three jigs danced in competition, the light jig, the single jig and the treble (or double) jig. Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, like "Pop Goes the Weasel" and are soft shoes dances., while the treble jig is hard shoe. The "treble jig" is hard shoe, danced in a slow 6/8.
The actual steps in Irish step dance are usually unique to each school or dance teacher. Steps are developed by Irish dance teachers for students of their school. Each dance is built out of the same basic elements, or steps, but the dance itself is unique, and new dances are being choreographed all the time. For this reason, videotaping of competitions is forbidden under the rules of An Coimisiun.
Each step is a sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps, which lasts for 8 bars of music for the "right foot" and is repeated for the "left foot" of the step. Hardshoe dancing includes clicking (striking the heels of the feet against each other), trebles (the toe of the shoe striking the floor), and stamps (the entire foot striking the floor).
There are two types of hard shoe dance, the solo dances, which are the hornpipe and treble jig, and the set dances. There are approximately thirty solo set dance tunes, mostly jigs and hornpipes. These tunes vary a bit in tempo to allow for more difficult steps for higher level dancers. Teachers choreograph the contemporary non-traditional sets their dancers dance to these special tunes. An unusual feature of the set dance tune is that many are "crooked", with some of the parts, or sections, of the tunes departing from the common 8 bar formula. The crooked tune may have a part consisting of 7.5 bars, or 14 bars, etc.
The traditional set dances are historical in significance. The music and steps for each traditional set was set down long ago by past dance masters and passed down under An Coimisiún auspices as part of the rich history of stepdancing, hence the "traditional." There are many traditional sets, but the traditional sets performed in competition are St. Patrick's Day, the Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, Garden of Daisies, King of the Fairies, and Jockey to the Fair.
The group, or céilí, dances vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. The céilí dances used in competitions are bouncier and more precise versions of those danced in pubs and church basements. There are a group of céilí dances which have been standardized, called the "book" dances, as they have been archived and published in An Coimisiun's "Ar Rinncidhe Foirne" as examples of typical Irish folk dances. A céilí may be performed with as few as four people and as many as sixteen. The Irish word "céilí" has no precise English word that means quite the same thing; "party" is the closest English can come. These dances are meant more for socialization and fun than as an athletic and competitive form. But the céilí dances are still fast-paced and may be quite complicated. In a social setting, the céilí may be "called" -- that is, the upcoming steps are announced during the dance for the benefit of newcomers.
This is not to say that ceili dancing is not part of the world of competitive step dancing. On the contrary, team ceili dancing is very important to dancers and their teachers, providing opportunity for international travel and acclaim. Many CLRG dance schools place as much emphasis on solo dance as ceili dancing, meticulously rehearsing the dances as written in the book, striving for perfect interpretation. In local competition figure dances may be competed included 2 or 3 dancers. These are not traditional book dances and are choreographed similar to solo dancing. Dances for 4, 6 or 8 dancers are also often found in competition, but the book dances for 16 dancers are rarely offered. The Figure Choreography competition at Major Oireachtasi must be for more than 8 dancers and is a chance for teachers to show off interesting and intricate group choreography. A winning team at an Oireachtas gains a reputation for their school, and is thus an important part of competition. The teams that have won the most figure and ceili competitions are Sean Eirann McMahon, and Doherty, both from the midlands, UK.
Some of the ceili dances are named after the traditional Irish tunes to which they are danced, others after the region of Ireland they were developed in, and some may be done to any jig or reel. The ceili dances developed from the French quadrille dances; and are among the ancestors of the North American square dance.
There is no secret to winning Irish Step Dancing competitions. The fanciest costume can be worn by the sloppiest dancer and the simple white blouse and black skirt can be worn by the best. Rhythm, timing, posture, and elevation are the keys to winning. Judges at competitions critique the dancers primarily on their performance, but they also take into account presentation. . In every level of competition the dancers must wear either hard shoes or soft shoes, and white poodle socks or tights. Female dancers either curl their hair or wear a curly wig, although most dancers these days wear wigs. Boy and girls wear very distinctive costumes. The girls wear dresses with pleated skirts which are beautifuly embroidered. The boys used to wear jackets and kilts, but now more commonly perform in black trousers with a colourful shirt and tie. Costumes can be more simple for the beginning female dancer; they often wear a simple dance skirt and plain blouse.
A beginner dancer can be any age, including adults. In the Advanced Beginner and Novice levels the dancers begin to wear their dancing school’s costume. The certain colors and emblem that is used on the dresses represents the dance school to differentiate it from other dance schools. These are in the style of a solo dress, but are simple with only a few colors, while are still more complex than the beginner’s outfit. Many North American schools allow their students to select a personal, or "solo" dress, at Prizewinner Level.
Competition dresses have transformed in many ways since Irish Dance first appeared. Several generations ago the appropriate dress was simply your "Sunday Best". In the 1980s ornately embroidered velvet became popular. Other materials include gaberdine and wool. Today many different fabrics are used, including lace, sequins, silk, embroidered organzas and more. The dresses have a stiffened skirt pleated into panels which are stiffened with Vilene. Dresses can weigh several pounds, depending on the fabric, and require some getting used to.
Preliminary and Open Championship are levels where dancers can qualify for Major competitions. At these levels, solo costumes help each dancer show their sense of style, and they enable them to stand out among a crowd. The dancers can either have a new solo dress made specially for them with their choice of colours, fabrics and designs (some dancers will even design the dress themselves) or they can buy second hand from another dancer. Championship dresses often have expensivde, sequined fabrics, and it is becoming popular for only two or three colors to be used. Since the dresses are hand made with pricy materials, unique designs, and are measured to each dancer’s body type, the dresses cost between $600 and $4,000. When each dancer grows out of the dress she can sell it on at competitions or via the internet 
Along with having the beautiful hand crafted sequined dresses, championship dancers have wigs and crowns. Dancers in lower levels have the choice to wear either a wig or curl their hair, but usually in championship, girls choose to wear a wig. Curled hair finishes off the look but many young dancers became tired of sleeping in rollers and the painful process of taking them out. Wigs are convenient and are a guarantee for a polished look on stage. Dancers get synthetic ringlet wigs that match their hair color (some go a shade lighter or darker). The wigs can range from $20.00 to $150. The championship competitions are usually danced on a stage with a lot of lighting. Usually the crowns match the colors and materials of the dresses, but some dancers choose to wear tiaras, or tiaras with a fabric crown. To prevent looking washed out, dancers often wear stage makeup and tan their legs. A ban was put in place in January 2005 for Under 10 dancers forbidding them to wear fake tan, but in October 2005 it was decided that Under 12 dancers who were in the Beginner and Primary levels would not be allowed to wear fake tan/make up.
Modern Irish stepdance can be taught anywhere. Teachers must be certified with one of several separate organisations such as An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha ("The Irish Dancing Commission") or An Comhdháil Múinteoirí Na Rincí Gaelacha ("The Congress of Irish Dancing Teachers"), in order for their students to be eligible for competitions (dancers may only enter competitions run by the organisation the teacher is registered with).
Each organisation has a certification process which consists of a written and practical exam in the applicant's ability to teach Irish dance. In An Coimisiún these certificates are the T.M.R.F. (gives permission to teach céilí dances), T.C.R.G. (gives permission to teach solo dances) and A.D.C.R.G. ((gives permission to judge at feiseanna).
Competitive step dancing has grown steadily since the mid 1900's, and more rapidly since the appearance of Riverdance. An organized step dance competition is referred to as a feis (pronounced "fesh", correct plural feiseanna, although "feshes" is usually used). The word feis means "festival" in Irish, and strictly speaking is also composed of competitions in music and crafts. Féile ("faila") is a more correct term for the dance competition, but the terms may be used interchangeably. Many annual competitions are truly becoming full-fledged feiseanna, by adding competitions in music, art, baking, etc.
Participants in a feis must be students of an accredited step dance teacher. Dance competitions are divided by age and level of expertise. The names for feis competition levels vary around the world:
- UK: novice reel, primary, intermediate, open
- Ireland: Bun Grád, Tús Grád, Meán Grád, Ard Grád, Craobh Grád (translates as "bottom", "beginning", "middle", "high" and "trophy" grades)
- North America: Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, Prizewinner/Open, Preliminary Champion, Open Champion
- Europe: Beginner, Primary, Intermediate, Open
- Australia: Novice, Beginner, Primary, Elementary, Intermediate, Open
Despite a competition structure and culture that almost exclusively supports children, many feiseanna offer competitions for adult Irish dancers. At the beginner level, an adult Irish dancer is someone who did not dance as a child and is over the age of 18. Past beginner level, there is no restriction. Adult competitions, when offered, are held separately from children's competitions, and adults may advance only to Prizewinner level. If they wish to attempt higher levels, then they must switch over to competitions for young adults and may no longer compete as "Adults." This is referred to an "And Over" level, such as Ages 18 and Over.
In North America, the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America restricts adult Irish dancers to the simpler, traditional speed hardshoe dances. Adult dancers capable of dancing the more complex, non-traditional speed hardshoe dances must have the support of their teacher before they can compete in the "And Over" age categories where they may perform the more complex dances.
Rules for feiseanna are set by the Organisation, not a particular feis. In An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (the largest of the "official" organizations), dancers are judged by adjudicators certified by An Coimisiún. This certification is known as the A.D.C.R.G., meaning Ard Diploma Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (in English - Highest Diploma in Gaelic Dancing.) It is awarded to those who have passed the exams set by the An Coimisiún and have also been certified as T.C.R.G. Local organizations may add additional rules to the basic rule set. There are seven CLRG regions in North America.
An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas (pronounced "oh-rock-tus"). Regional Oireachtas are normally held in November and December. Up to 10 dancers from each age group may qualify for the World Championships - the exact number is worked out with a formula and is based on the number of dancers competing. National championship competitions are held annually in Ireland (known as the All-Ireland competition), North America (including Canada and the United States, called North American Nationals, or "NAN's"), the UK ("Great Britans" and "British Nationals" - there are two here!), Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Annual World Championship competitions have been held in The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The 2006 competition was held in Belfast. The 2007 competition will be held in Glasgow.